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Is Professional Development Really a Benefit to Students?

By Tamatha Bibbo and Roberto d’Erizans

Once again it is Wednesday afternoon, and you are sitting in a large group while a presenter delivers a training session on Smart boards. You learn how to display a Prezi, or use an interactive feature in KeyNote. Some of your peers are engaged, some look out the window, and some are checking their smart phones.
Maybe it is not a technology-focused workshop, but a speaker who simply describes research and fails to link its application to the pragmatic realities of the classroom. We have all been there. Does this training, or for that matter, most of the professional development (PD) we as educators participate in each year, have any effect on student learning? Is PD really worth the time we dedicate to it?
PD is defined by the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) as “a comprehensive, sustained and intensive approach to improving teachers’ and principals’ effectiveness in raising student achievement.” Furthermore, NSDC adds that PD in schools should “foster collective responsibility for improved student performance…” As such, PD should not be a way for teachers to be “fed” information that they then can elect to implement or not, but should be a thoughtful, intentional process that allows educators to learn, practice, reflect and assess.
What types of PD actually improve student learning outcomes?
Limited research exists on the direct impact of certain PD experiences on student learning outcomes. However, more recent research show some strong links. For example, research by both Marion Meiers and Lawrence Ingvarson at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) indicates that there is a sufficient research base that supports the identification of characteristics of successful PD that lead to improved student learning.
These include a focus on specific content/subject area knowledge or pedagogical strategies; active learning; sufficient duration; reflection and feedback; and collaboration.
1. Specific content
Research has shown that effective PD that delivers results includes sustained focus on pedagogical strategies and/or specific content knowledge. Those learning experiences specific to teachers’ day-to-day practice have proven to be more powerful in improving student learning outcomes.
2. Active learning
This indicator includes learning that is not passive, such as a lecture or webinar; some examples of active PD include interactive discussions, observations followed by feedback and discussion, reviewing student work, utilizing hands-on activities, and offering opportunities that allow for immediate implementation, practice, and reflection.
3. Reflection and feedback
PD needs to contain an opportunity to practice, ways to follow up and reflect on the content or skill, and a structured manner in which to host these vital conversations. Furthermore, recognizing that the results are often not immediate, but that strong PD impacts student outcomes over time, we must provide an opportunity for teams of teachers to reflect and improve as they implement new practices.
4. Duration
PD must be of sufficient duration, including both span over time and number of hours spent on a specific activity in order to master the content and skills needed to make significant impact on teacher practice. Laura Desimone, Associate Professor at Penn Graduate School of Education found that: “Research has not indicated an exact ‘tipping point’ for duration but shows support for activities that are spread over a semester (or intense summer institutes with follow-up during the semester) and include 20 hours or more of contact time.”
5. Collaboration and professional learning communities
This practice includes the use of professional learning communities that must follow up on the same goal(s) over time. This involves giving teachers, in small groups, opportunities to practice, follow up, reflect, and learn from their peers, who often serve as the primary support structure for any sustained change. Additionally, opportunities for ongoing collaboration, which is not evaluative in nature and encourages an atmosphere of trust and focus on student learning, encourage risk-taking on the part of the teacher to try new strategies.
How can we measure if PD has had any impact?
Assessments must include the use of specific data, including, but not limited to: student work, common assessments, standardized tests, student grades, and just as importantly, anecdotal data from both teachers and students.
Increased scores are certainly an important measure of success, yet just as important is the teacher and student feedback systems, in terms of process and result. It is in this feedback that the links can be made between the teacher’s personal learning experience and the change in student outcomes. By identifying the causes for improvement in student performance, teachers are more likely to take risks and continue on their individual professional learning cycle.
Finally, improvements often cannot be demonstrated immediately and often take time, and thereby decisions ought to be made based on complete results, instead of simply with initial or incomplete findings.
Studies of the effects of PD and the impact on student learning can be troubling. For example, one study found that fewer than 15 percent of teachers use innovative ideas learned in traditional PD to impact student learning or growth. Furthermore, another result indicates that traditional models of PD are largely “teacher-focused rather than being centered on student learning outcomes.” Yet all schools still invest large amounts of their budgets in these traditional models.
However, we are encouraged by recent research suggesting that if schools make research-based decisions on the type and format of the PD, and directly link these activities to specific student learning improvement goals, they will derive more direct results; this is especially true if we ensure they model the five characteristics of effective PD outlined above.

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05/17/2014 - sadia
the needs arise in classrooms where there are students with mixed qualities and potentials, with different approaches and emotional state ,level of current learning and the different approaches of teaching they encountered .their interests and extra curricular routine , behaviour they expect and show and the problems and concerns they hold .All this poses the teacher with a new challenge every day besides her or his own life and commitments .Is there any identification of common issues that needs parents,teachers,and school administration agreeing and adopting one strategy to provide the child with a balanced environment and routine to maximise the results of teaching efforts?
05/17/2014 - sadia
This is a thought provoking article. It should be the primary concern for those receiving and imparting pd courses .I feel for those who taste best food every day ,appetite and taste become a major concern but if they share that great tasting food with hungry ,both will benefit. As human mind gains more and more awareness ,that becomes so normal that we dont get to know how great it is .so to understand that bring teachers who are new and see the difference whether PD is important or not.



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